Mutual aid and solidarity in Iran during the COVID-19 pandemic

Iran Review | Maziyar Ghiabi: In a remote village in central Iran, a man in his seventies fell sick and, after a few days, died. A witty and well-known figure in the otherwise isolated plateau located around 62 miles south of Qom, he had “preexisting cardiovascular problems and was overweight,” but people in the community whispered that “it was coronavirus [korona] that had taken away his life.” Fewer people than usual showed up at his funeral. The entourage, including his closest kin, sat over 6 feet apart from each other and wore masks and gloves “out of the fear that the virus had reached this forgotten land.” The dead man’s nephew recalled: “I’ve never seen a funeral like this. It was so civilized, it seemed we were in the West.”

Epidemics suspend the flow of ordinary life. Daily occurrences and rituals change in such a dramatic way that life itself appears under a different light, even when—from negligence or necessity—the acts of the everyday carry on as usual.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping lives and global politics in far-reaching ways, both in the short and long term. In Iran, the state at first wavered in response to the spread of the coronavirus. Initial inaction, however, was replaced by a mass mobilization across the government and military to try to monitor, treat and contain COVID-19. As of April 13, the Iranian authorities have confirmed over 73,000 infections and 4,585 deaths and are now relaxing some restrictions on movement. A report published by the Majles Research Center suggests, however, that the total number of COVID-19 deaths is probably twice as high.

The effects of the pandemic are also being powerfully felt on the social and cultural organization of everyday life and healthcare. In particular, people are responding to the rapid changes in public life with new forms of social organization and grassroots mutual aid. The multiple crises—in public health, employment, governance and the economy—brought about by the pandemic, and the resulting practices of solidarity, may have implications for Iran’s post-pandemic future.

The State’s Haphazard Response

On February 19, 2020 the Iranian Ministry of Health informed the public that two individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 in Qom. It remained unclear how the virus had reached the holy city. Several sources referred to Chinese Muslim scholars returning from Wuhan or Chinese laborers on infrastructure projects, others identified Iranian merchants trading with China. By the end of February, Iran’s deputy health minister and several high-profile political figures, including several members of parliament who had won seats in the February 21, 2020 parliamentary elections tested positive for the virus. It appeared that the government had been caught utterly unprepared.

Divergent approaches to the pandemic across the political order gave the impression of widespread panic within the government. In the first weeks of the coronavirus’s spread, President Hassan Rouhani and his entourage refused to call for stringent measures of control—allegedly to maintain a veneer of normalcy during the parliamentary elections in February—even though the Ministry of Health was advocating for stricter measures. Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced the closure of schools and universities across the country on March 5, following the closures in 14 provinces on February 22. In mid-March, the armed forces began a lockdown of Tehran and other major cities. A combination of approaches thus emerged from the government: sporadic preventive measures from Rouhani and his supporters, stricter calls for containment from the Ministry of Health, plus a heavy presence of the army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to patrol highways, city entry points and public space. As of April 16, the government has instructed a slow re-opening of businesses and offices, implementing what it refers to as “smart social distancing.”

Caught between domestic pressure to intervene and the external challenges of geopolitical and economic isolation and US sanctions, the Rouhani government initially adopted a policy of wait and see. Commentators have pointed out that the economic cost of an interventionist approach involving a large-scale lockdown and public assistance to the unemployed would fall beyond the government’s financial capabilities. Strong intervention was also beyond the government’s political persuasion, as Rouhani had been elected on a platform promising a retraction of the state from the economy, something that would be impractical under a lockdown. A draconian lockdown risked the livelihoods of the working class and large numbers of the self-employed in the informal sector, a scenario that could be conducive to bread riots and mass discontent on an even larger scale than the protests of 2019.

Mass Mobilizations, Past and Present

Yet, this initial strategy of inaction enabled several radical steps, without needing to deplete state finances. Rouhani’s government eventually found inspiration for its response to the pandemic in what has become the paradigm of crisis intervention from the post-revolutionary era: the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). The government’s first step was to create a Headquarters to Fight Coronavirus. On February 25, Rouhani appointed Namaki, the Minister of Health, as its chief. The objective was to deal with the practical realities of crisis management through task forces—subgroups of policymakers and health experts—which could implement fast and effective interventions.

The second step sought to enable responses at a semi-formal level, such as with a parallel command-and-control center in the national response to the pandemic: the Headquarters for Health and Treatment of Coronavirus, led by the Joint Chief-of-Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Baqeri. The two headquarters met within the Council for the Support of the Decisions of the National Headquarters against Coronavirus. This coordination between government and security apparatuses resulted in noticeable policy outcomes. For example, by early April, state authorities had released an estimated 100,000 prisoners over a period of three weeks—one of the highest releases per capita worldwide. Given that about 70–80 percent of Iran’s prisoners are drug offenders, it resulted in an unprecedented mass release aptly coinciding with the traditional Iranian Nowruz amnesty delivered by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This decision eased some of the mounting social pressure coming from public campaigns from prisoners and their families and following prison riots and breakouts amidst the fear of mass contagion.

The third step, in line with the war paradigm of the 1980s, was large scale mobilization through formal and informal local organizations to monitor the spread of the virus throughout the nation. By the end of March, the army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Basij forces had set up controls all over the country. Volunteers undertook a program of screening of symptoms that reached 22 million people by early April. The army set up check points on all major roads and highways, taking drivers’ temperatures and disinfecting their vehicles. They also built several recovery stations, where those discharged from COVID-19 treatment could spend an average of two weeks before returning to their homes. By the first week in April, the government promised to allocate 20 percent of the budget to post-pandemic recovery.

What seemed a haphazard initial response and a reluctant strategy turned into a mass mobilization across the state apparatus. But it is not governmental action alone that drove responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the pandemic triggered a profound transformation in the social and cultural life of Iranians, as it has elsewhere. This tectonic shift led to both cultural reconfigurations and to grassroots mutual aid amidst epochal challenges.

Social Organization and Cultural Reconfigurations

On March 16, 2020 angry crowds defied the government’s closure of the shrines of Fatemeh Masumeh in Qom and Imam Reza in Mashhad, the two holiest sites in Iran. The Qom crowd, led by a cleric, shouted that “Tehran did a damned thing (ghalat karde); the Minister of Health did a damned thing, the President did a damned thing [to close the shrine],” for shrines are places of intercession and healing. Little mattered that Ayatollah Alam-ol-Hoda, the Supreme Leader’s representative in Khorasan-e Rajavi, had spelled out that “Imam Reza is not in his tomb, neither he is in the golden shrine…Imam Reza heals, gold and silver don’t heal!”

Disruptive events such as a pandemic unsettle culture and ethics. Restrictions on social gatherings and public life disrupt the rituals of mourning, malady, pilgrimage and celebration, but not without causing opposition and resentment. All over the world, a tension has arisen between those demanding a pause of social rituals to ensure the preservation of life and those deeming such rituals essential to life itself. Angry protesters seeking emotional comfort in the sacred spaces of Qom’s Fatemeh Ma‘sumeh shrine, like Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or Christians in Orthodox churches in Greece, clashed with the rationale of prevention measures. In Italy far-right politicians such as Matteo Salvini “begged” the government to allow Easter celebrations to go ahead as in past years, affirming that “science is not enough.” Many observers see these examples as the embodiment of a clash of irrationality versus rationality, religion versus secular science.

Yet, people attending non-religious rituals, such as football matches and Nowruz celebrations have equally opposed the bans. Large crowds gathered in the parks of Tehran’s Ekbatan neighborhood during the Nowruz festival of chaharshanbeh suri or decided to depart for long-distance travels during the new year’s holidays, in spite of the Ministry of Health’s advice to stay at home.

As the pandemic reconfigures public life across the globe, people mitigate their fears with their own repertoire of cultural practices. In Iran, the epidemic has accelerated an already strong trend: the role of the internet and social media. The flow of information regarding COVID-19 has been incessant—jokes, funny videos, emotional calls for unity, presumptive cures based on Galenic medicine, official declarations from international public health organizations and guidelines from national health practitioners have all been exchanged on a dizzying array of communication platforms and across various borders.

The pandemic’s effect on the mental health of the general population is especially acute among the most vulnerable groups in Iran such as women who are widows or divorced, children and the homeless. The Iranian Scientific Association of Social Work (ISASW), an independent association with more than 200 members with postgraduate and doctoral degrees working in social work, has mobilized its professional network to provide support for individuals. Its activities are taking place autonomously from state-led initiatives and through grassroots interventions and mutual help groups, serving approximately 1,000 people with sessions lasting from 30 minutes to one hour.

Virtual connectivity compensates for physical distancing, giving space to new forms of social organization and mutual aid. To prevent viral contagion, the ISASW has put in place a system of remote working involving professionals across the health and welfare sectors. There are obvious limitations to virtual connections, but also some advantages. Remote connection enables people seeking help to maintain their privacy, a factor that can undermine access for psychological support among the working class. The use of virtual means also increases the possibility of service provision to remote geographical areas that would otherwise be too far from the main locations of health workers. The ISASW has activated a hotline and a website to reach out to those seeking support amidst the crisis. The hotline redirects the calls to specific task forces staffed by one of three professionals: a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Based on a first assessment, those who call in are forwarded to specialists who provide both individual and group therapy.

This mobilization targets groups at the margins of epidemic governance, such as children and the homeless. As across the globe, children must adjust to new life conditions under lockdown. For many working class families, school closures and the lack of physical space and the mounting emotional and economic pressure turns the household environment into a disturbing space for children’s daily life. Iran’s director for social harms at the Welfare Organization declared that “although there are no precise statistics…calls to the social emergency number on the 123 line have gone up, which means there is an increase in child abuse and spousal abuse.” To facilitate a safe environment at home, the ISASW created a number of free booklets with games and activities for children of different age groups, with the objective of decreasing the pressure on families. Public officials made clear that welfare provision and healthcare is free of charge and also available to peddlers, refugees and those working in the informal economy.

Where direct action is absolutely necessary, outreach social workers have intervened in impoverished neighborhoods. Large numbers of homeless people and child workers gather in the streets and alleys or under the highway bridges, heightening the risk of mass contagion. In one instance, a social worker found a homeless man in his seventies, a long-term heroin and methamphetamine user, laying on the ground south of Tehran’s bazar. She referred the man to the hospital where, a fortnight later, he had recovered. As the man had no identification card, the recovery station refused to host him for a post-recovery monitoring period in spite of the social worker’s active mediation. The man ended up in a shelter for homeless people managed by a local non-governmental organization (NGO).

This highly mobile urban population is doubly at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them do not have proper identification cards and risk being left out of the public health system. Exposed and hustling to earn money, many also have comorbidities, which means that they suffer from other health conditions such as tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS that increase their risk of serious illness from COVID-19. They often do not have access to the internet so they lack basic information regarding the virus and proper preventive measures. Charities and local associations—based in mosques and also in neighborhoods—are coordinating with social workers to provide masks and gloves. They are also working to disseminate information on preventative practices, either by passing out brochures or by reading the brochure’s text aloud in squares and public parks. These associations maintain regular contact with local personalities to guarantee swift intervention and referral to hospitals in case vulnerable people manifest COVID-19 symptoms. Therapeutic communities and rehabilitation centers—also known as “camps” in Iran—have taken up the duty of quarantining homeless or “risky” drug users, hence acting as a non-state mechanism to manage the pandemic.

Popular mobilization has also occurred beyond the social margins. Mosques have stocked up on hygiene and nutrition products to distribute to families in need. Independent women’s associations in popular neighborhoods have set up local factories to produce masks after receiving training through the mediation of an NGO. In the town of Divandarreh, in Iranian Kurdistan, local families raised more than $23,000 (a very large sum for such a small town) to purchase intensive care unit equipment when the hospital lacked the means to treat one of their fellow citizens who had fallen ill with COVID-19.

Visions of Mutualism in a Post-Pandemic Future

In these times of crisis, there are innumerable examples of mutual aid across Iran. These practices of solidarity are not simply cases of volunteering, self-help or civil society activism and are not merely compensating for gaps in the state’s response. They are a pedagogy of struggle amidst disruption and of community organizing primarily within the popular classes. Educators, social workers and professionals are performing mutual aid with the popular classes, not for them, and are enabling community organizing in settings where it has faded away over decades of social demobilization.

This mutual aid or “mutualism” creates spaces of encounter over real-life problems, which are common to the majority. It works as a school for practicing and experiencing how to manage the commons. It creates inroads into new ways of imagining politics and the state.

Will Iran be changed by COVID-19? The pandemic is undermining existing state-society relations, more than any sanctions regime or threat of war from the United States. It is transforming people’s understanding of the responsibilities and capacities of state and public authority, as well as their right to healthcare and social welfare. A pandemic has the potential to reshape people’s perspectives on life and death and reconfigure the place of religion, of power and of community. Once COVID-19 is no longer a large-scale threat, the question of what constitutes a mutual society and a community of support around which life can prosper and state power is regulated may become all the more immediate.